Doubts Cloud a Deadly Conflict
Australia's doubts about the Vietnam War, and to what extent it should be involved, began to surface long before the rapid build-up, which eventually left 504 dead.
By late 1966, when Australia's troop commitment was just two battalions and the cause was highly popular back home, senior ministers and bureaucrats were already warning of being sucked into a war almost by default.
The Defence Minister, Mr Allen Fairhall, had deep misgivings about additional troop deployments, fearing an open-ended commitment represented a serious threat to Australia's other interests. He was supported by the Prime Minister's Department, which said there was no need for an early decision to send more troops.
In a "top secret" submission to the Cabinet on 16 December, Mr Fairhall urged that shortfalls in Australia's effort be met from within existing establishments. The previous Defence Minister, Mr Shane Paltridge, had recommended in 1965 that the battalion serving in Bien Hoa and Vung Tau, already boosted by 300 troops, be substantially complemented by a taskforce of 3500.
This had arrived in March 1966. Mr Paltridge had also said the annual intake of 8400 conscripts should be retained. The Government was holding out against considerable pressure - internal (the rate at which forces in Vietnam needed patching up) and external (US pressure to do more), but by 1966 Australia was battling to maintain a low-key approach.
Yesterday's release of the 1966 Cabinet records by Australian Archives includes the top-secret report detailing the progress of the war, as well as canvassing options for increased Australian involvement. These ranged from augmenting existing forces to increase combat readiness, to sending a third battalion, along with the extraordinary idea of using Sabre jet fighters to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, officially an ally.
Thirty years ago Australia's commitment to the Vietnam conflict was 4,660 - a lot more than had been envisaged but spectacularly short of what it would become. This comprised the two-battalion taskforce, with combat and logistic elements (4270 men), an army training team (100 men), and an RAAF contingent operating a squadron of seven Caribou aircraft and eight Iroquois helicopters (290 men).
This formed part of an overall "Free World" contribution to the South Vietnamese Government of 410,000. America was planning to increase its share of the load (already about 80 per cent of the total) with a further 100,000 in the next year. But Washington was already pressuring Canberra to do more.
The options canvassed ranged from sending the guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart and a mine-clearance diving team, sending a third battalion (which would necessitate raising at least one more battalion back home), sending a cavalry squadron (220 men), to redeploying a squadron (eight aircraft) of Canberra bombers from Malaysia to Vietnam. Another proposal was to use jet bombers from Butterworth (Malaysia) or Ubon (Thailand) air bases.
Australia's soldiers might have been conscripted to die for their country - or rather, defending someone else's - but when it came to having a say in the decision many were not to be entrusted with the vote.
Australia held its first "birthday ballot" on 10 March 1965. A year later, as training was completed and South-East Asian commitments mounted, the dire decision was imminent. Conscripts were to be sent overseas and for the first time Cabinet was made fully aware that the different, more unpredictable type of warfare meant there were no "lines" behind which to shelter.
The dead, as we now know, would be many.
Many of the conscripts were still aged 20 - too young to vote - and they were soon to board the planes to stand in the line of fire.
"The Cabinet noted that the question had arisen, in view of the inclusion of National Servicemen in units soon to be sent to combat areas abroad, of the extension of voting rights to such of these men who are under 21 years of age," a minute of 15 March reports.
Voting had been extended to 18 to 21-year-olds in the First World War (a cheap concession, as it turned out, as peace broke out before they could exercise their temporary franchise) and the Second World War (in 1943). It had not been considered during the Korean War.
Of most concern, according to the Interior Minister, Mr Doug Anthony, was how to prevent the vote being extended to those other than fighting conscripts. In a paper he prepared for Cabinet in April, Mr Anthony said, "unless and until the Government decides to lower the franchise generally, I see no reason for differentiating between persons in the Defence Forces within Australia and those not in the Defence Forces within Australia".
"There seems no good reason why members of the Defence Force, under 21 years of age on service within Australia, should be given a privilege not available to other citizens who are performing work of equal importance." Mr Anthony recommended that the vote only be extended to 18-year olds in the Defence Force on "recognised active service outside Australia".
By Gervase Greene,Canberra
Wednesday 1 January 1997
As reported in The Age